Understanding and Getting the
Most from Farmers’ Local
Athropologists have studied local knowledge since the 1960s, with a set of formal techniques and theory called ethnoscience (for example, Berlin, 1992 and Conklin, 1962, among many others that could be cited). The American anthropologist Eugene Hunn’s thoughtful book The Big River describes how Indians along the Columbia River still rely on and know a great deal about wild plants (Hunn, 1990). The Land Against Time by the British anthropologist Paul Sillitoe is an encyclopaedic description of environmental knowledge of the Wola people in Highland New Guinea. Sillitoe shows that for some subjects (e.g., sweetpotato varieties), local knowledge is astoundingly complex. For other topics, local knowledge is fragmentary or incomplete (e.g., pests and diseases and geology) while for others (like soils) local knowledge is deep and detailed, yet bears little resemblance to modern scientific accounts of the same subject (Sillitoe, 1996).
There are four basic types of local knowledge (deep, shallow, missing and mistaken), depending on whether the things in the natural world are important to people or not, and if they are easy or difficult to observe.
Table 1 is a simple way to classify knowledge which we have found useful – it is very important that whenever dealing with farmers on a specific issue that we as scientists are clear in our own minds about which of the boxes we are working in. It is an example of a way to formalize knowledge, which is a basic function of science.
Excerpts adapted from:
Bentley, J.W. and P.S. Baker. 2002.
Manual for Collaborative Research
with Smallholder Coffee Farmers.
Egham, UK: CABI Commodities.